GRAVEN IMAGES: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels

edited by A. David Lewis and Christine Hoff Kraemer
Continuum ($34.95)

by Spencer Dew

This collection of essays emerges from an academic conference, its contents touching on issues relating to comic books, broadly, and “religion,” more broadly, aiming to capture such facets as magic, in theory and practice; Christianity, as creed and culture; and certain Islamicized aspects of culture as experienced through certain Westernized lenses. The book would have been strengthened, however, by editorial clarity in regard to subject matter and editorial rigor in regard to the selected essays. “Whatever course one takes through Graven Images, the reader should have faith that these essays are not random selections. . . . they draw a particular strength from one another, even those that presuppose distinctly different theologies (or none at all),” the editors tell us in their introduction, but readers who lack such faith will more likely see this book as roughly stitched together, of more use on the resumes of the academic professionals involved than for the stated goals of providing “comics readers” with “a tool for discussion that continues to legitimize the medium . . . and that may, perhaps, catalyze fans’ efforts at comics criticism and scholarship,” while simultaneously offering “teachers and scholars . . . exciting entry points for group discussions on religious issues and paths.”

Some fascinating work gets referenced and discussed in these pages, and the book has a use value in getting folks to read more such exciting stuff, but it’s not always clear what “religious issues and paths” are getting explored or why. Yes, God gets killed in Garth Ennis’s acclaimed series Preacher, and, yes, this has something to do with existential angst; yes, Superman (and various other tights-wearing types) have a tendency to die yet not quite die—but the burden on the enthusiastic young scholar is not merely to locate an example within its cultural context but to show us, as readers, why this particular instance of the larger cultural trope matters—why, in a world of things to read and look at, it is uniquely worthwhile, with more ammunition than the fact that “myriad spin-off websites and discussion pages explore the series at length.”

I say this because while this volume touches on important work, most of the essays in Graven Imagesengage in something more like free-form confessionalism, articulating a kind of experience, practice, and worldview that, while rooted in American religious milieu, operates outside of traditional boundaries. Midrash gets mentioned, for instance, but no one here seems to be approaching religion from within the notion of Oral Torah and the legacy of rabbinics; likewise, there’s a nice reading of the reconciliation of agape and eros in Craig Thompson’s Blankets, but this essay, like that book, seems to speak from a sort of post-denominational Christian stance. Why does this matter? Because zealous universalism can be as exclusivizing as rigid fundamentalism, and outside of a comparative scholarly framework, ideas can get sloppy and readers can get bored, lost, or fed up with pious gassings. “If you make your criteria broad enough and abstract enough, you can prove—or seem to prove—almost anything,” one author writes. Unfortunately this is proven true multiple times throughout the book.

Where the book is consistently strongest, and—not coincidentally—most self-reflexive, is in regard to those comics that explicitly play with metaphysical function: “the books themselves are an act of magic,” as one author says of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. Another piece, on Alan Moore’s Promethea, co-written by co-editor Christine Hoff Kraemer, who holds a chair at the Cherry Hill Seminary, carefully and compellingly parses out how this series was designed to work, exploring Moore’s “pedagogical aims.” In these essays, situated within the broader Western occult traditions, the tricky issue of “religion” is nicely narrowed down, and we can examine sympathy and contagion and meditation and temporality. Had Graven Images pursued a more focused selection of essays along these lines, it would have been able to offer the reader more depth and more dialogic connection. As it is, we have a motley assemblage, nodding to an array of interesting texts but unable, with its scattered foci and unexamined assumptions about its subjects, to warrant serious attention.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011